05/01/22 – A Holy Barbecue at the Beach

A HOLY BARBECUE AT THE BEACH

May 1, 2022
Third Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31; Acts 9
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

There are many lovely first signs of spring – the sounds of birds chirping in the early morning, the first shoots of new growth poking through the earth and for me, the first smell of barbecue smoke. A charcoal grill fire has a distinctive odor, which when mixed with the smell of the meat cooking, brings to mind a party. Another guest arrives, just put on another hamburger, no one leaves hungry at a barbecue.

Today’s gospel reading recalls the famous Resurrection barbecue in John. Last week we read about the Risen Christ appearing to his disciples twice in the upper room, where he had hosted the Passover meal with them earlier. First, he appeared to all of the disciples, except for one, Thomas, then another time with Thomas present. Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Risen Christ did not count in John’s symbolic use of the theologically significant number 3, since she was not one of the “official” disciples. After seeing the resurrected Jesus twice, I wondered why the men were fishing. I would have thought that would have been a pretty life-altering experience. But, of course, they still had to eat, and Jesus was all about feeding the hungry.

John’s gospel teems with evocative imagery. This story includes many memories of past events. Here, after an unsuccessful attempt at early morning fishing, Jesus meets them on the shore of the sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias. Jesus, characteristically concerned with no one going hungry, sees their plight and instructs the disciples to drop their nets on the other side. Then their nets were straining with fish, enough to have a big party! The reader might also remember the story of Jesus’ first miracle in John’s gospel, when he turned huge vessels of water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The scene is also reminiscent of the day Jesus first called them, but this time, instead of “Come follow me,” he says “Come, eat with me.”

Jesus handing out, first the bread then the fish, to his disciples prompts the memory of the Last Supper during which he passed the bread and then the wine for them to share. By the time John’s gospel was written, the ritual of the Eucharist was well-established in the early church.

John tells us Jesus already has the fire going, ready for barbecue. It might have been a joyous reunion for the other disciples but, for Peter, the scene would have been uncomfortably familiar.

In describing the scene, John uses the Greek word, anthrakia, specifying a charcoal fire. The only other time that word is used in the New Testament is also found in John’s gospel. In the early morning hours after Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter warmed himself around a charcoal fire in a courtyard. While Jesus was being interrogated by the Roman authorities, Peter was also being questioned by several different people while he sat around that charcoal fire. Three times he was asked: ‘You are not also one of his disciples, are you?’ Three times Peter answered: “I am not.”

For Peter, seeing his friend and teacher was, at first, a cause for celebration. However, when he saw the fire and smelled that distinctive charcoal smell, his joy would have been dampened by the memory of his earlier betrayal. Jesus had forgiven Peter, but he hadn’t forgotten what he did. Jesus is giving Peter a chance to clean the slate and begin again as a faithful disciple. Jesus asks Peter three times: “do you love me?” and Peter answers in the affirmative three times, once for each of his denials of Jesus.

With each of Peter’s affirmations, Jesus gives Peter a commission. Peter is forgiven, but Jesus wants him to do more than express a lovely sentiment, he wants Peter to act to demonstrate his love. At the Last Supper in John’s gospel, Jesus gives his disciples the commandment: “love others as I have loved you.” Jesus tells Peter after each of his affirmations: “feed my sheep.” Peter has a chance to make reparations and fulfill Jesus’ commandment in a real way. Weighted down by shame and guilt, Peter would not have been able to take the bold step into his new life.

We too, can become bound by shame and guilt. They might come from childhood, missed opportunities or destructive choices in our youth, failed relationships or unwise career choices in adulthood. And there are always sins of the past that worm their way into every aspect of our lives. Paralytic shame and guild are self-destructive and non-productive. Jesus had given himself up to the cross to die for our sins, but to experience the new life he offers, we must take hold of that forgiveness and use our freedom to start a new path.

The Old Testament books written about Israel’s not so glorious glory days, her exile and post-exilic return to start anew in a ravaged homeland speak to the power of corporate shame. Israel’s failures to put God first and live in community according to God’s instructions haunted the people. God fulfilled the promise to return the exiles to their homeland, but they had to do the work of restoration. What had they learned from their rebellious past? Their future would depend on returning to God’s holy ways. Returning God’s people to their homeland was a sign of forgiveness and an invitation to become a nation that witnessed to other nations the holiness of justice and peace. The Hebrew scriptures do not whitewash Israel’s complicity in their own troubles. Neither does the New Testament leave out the failures of the disciples, the fickle crowds, or the early congregations’ internal power struggles, bigotry, and false doctrine.

Our country has attempted to cover up its sins of the past by erasing inconvenient truths for our children. Today, those that have benefitted from the exploitation of the vulnerable, which the Old Testament prophets decried, want to erase the truth of corporate sins by denial, silence and aggressive tactics to prevent younger generations from learning from our country’s past sins. Winston Churchill was expressing a biblical truth when he warned: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” God sent Jesus, the Holy Word made flesh, to free us from repeating the sins of our ancestors that led them away from God. We were not freed from shame and guilt just to go out and commit the same sins again and again. Peter’s feelings were hurt when Jesus asked him a third time: “Do you love me,” but Jesus understood he needed to remember he had committed himself to Christ before, but his understanding of what that meant needed to improve, if Peter was going to be left with the responsibility to which he was being entrusted.

Forgiveness and a commission for redirection is demonstrated again in the transformation of Saul in our reading from Acts. Saul believed himself to be righteous. Unfortunately, he misunderstood God’s righteousness and had accepted the Pharisee’s rigid interpretation of righteousness. Saul’s understanding of righteousness had left out the holy. God’s justice, peace, mercy and love was a lower priority for Saul than adhering to laws created by human interpretation of God’s law. He was determined to purge his world of those heretical followers of Jesus — who had the audacity to claim to be the Messiah. The so-called followers of “The Way” weren’t following Saul’s understanding of righteousness. It wasn’t enough to disagree, and certainly not to questioning, Saul wanted them eliminated – erased. That was not the original intent of Jewish law, Murder was, and still is, against the most basic Jewish value, to protect and preserve life.

In all the current talk about what constitutes genocide, we don’t want to talk about past American policies based on genocide of Native Americans. If Native Americans were not eliminated from existence, they were forced to take on the identity of their persecutors, but without their ancestral land. We don’t want to remember, or the next generations to learn, about the atrocities of slavery, lynching, massacres of black communities, the economic, political, and legal roadblocks to prevent black people of gaining any real power. We don’t have to experience personal shame as Peter did, but we do need to the past sins of our society to stop repeating them. Jesus asked Peter to act differently, to be faithful to the way he had been taught by teaching and demonstrating Christ’s love and justice.

Saul, was so entrenched in his conviction that he was following the right rules that it took being struck blind and hearing the risen Christ’s voice to get his attention. His faith was due for a major attitude adjustment. The late Christian theologian, Rachel Held Evans, who was brought up in a rigid evangelical faith environment but rejected the lack of love and justice she found there, describes the situation this way in her book, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions. She writes:

“Faith is not about defending conquered ground but about
                           discovering new territory. Faith isn’t about being right, or
                           settling down or refusing to change. Faith is a journey, and
                           every generation contributes its own sketches to the map.
                           I’ve got miles and miles to go on this journey, but I think I
                          can see Jesus up ahead.” ― Rachel Held Evans, 

God forced Saul to see Jesus “up ahead” on Damascus Road, or at least hear his voice. Saul had to be blinded to his past misconceptions to be an instrument of God in the world. The faithful follower of Christ, Ananias, was forced to leave his comfort zone, which, in turn, changed his assumption that Saul was his enemy. Ananias was willing to see that God was doing a new thing that was worth considering. Until this moment, Ananias’ status quo was worshipping quietly, living in fellowship with other followers of “The Way,” and steering clear of Roman gentiles and Jews like Saul.

Ananias’ own inner transformation is demonstrated in his calling the former Pharisee Saul, “brother.” Our public discourse has turned our perspective into a neat dichotomy of enemies and friends. Ananias let go of his fears of Saul and saw him as Christ did. By accepting the risk of loving, Ananias becomes the instrument of Paul’s healing. Ananias delivered Jesus’ message and suddenly, Saul could see – his whole worldview changed.

Note what happened next: Saul, whose 180-degree turn in perspective merited a name change to Paul and he was baptized. Like the disciples on the shore of Lake Tiberias with the Risen Christ, after his baptism Paul received food to strengthen him, He then he went out and shared the good news of the gospel with others. With his new vision, Paul could now see Jesus in the faces of his brothers and sisters. Like Peter, he got another chance to see what holiness looked like in the world.

So today we will come to Christ’s table. There has always been controversy within the Church as to who can or can’t come to the table. I don’t believe in any “fencing of the table.” In the gospels of Luke and John, even Christ’s own disciples didn’t recognize him until he broke bread with them.

The Risen Christ puts it simply for Peter “If you love me…Feed my sheep.” There’s a hungry world out there, hungry for food, hungry for compassion, hungry for justice, hungry for God. There’s always room at the table for more. May we be so transformed by the risen Christ that we live both resurrected and sacramental lives, being witnesses for and observers of holiness.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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